LOS ANGELES – Karilyn Steward’s office, somewhat hidden in the back rooms of the Calabasas Library, has everything one would expect a librarian’s office to have. There are pictures of Karilyn and her library teen-volunteers, easily more than a few dozen books, half of which seem to be part of the Harry Potter series, post-its, folders, paperwork that most likely doesn’t concern the general public, and even a few pictures of her favorite movie stars to spice up the often-monotonous nature of the job.
Just five feet from her desk, however, is a box that sits on top of a cabinet. Inside the box is eight paper mache Olympic torches, each hand made with a paper towel roll, red, orange, and yellow tissue paper, cellophane tape, and craft glue.
Every two years, either before the Winter Olympic Games or the Summer Olympic Games, Steward “hijacks” the library’s preschool story-time and does an arts and crafts event for elementary school-age kids. It is her way of sharing the experience of going to eight different Olympic Games as a spectator with those who haven’t.
“I want to look back on my life [and know] that I was a good person, did interesting things and had good memories,” said Steward. “I think you should spend your money on what makes you happy and you enjoy. You can’t take things with you at the end of your life.”
At the age of 21, Steward attended her first Olympic Games held in Los Angeles as a volunteer. Her mother had connections with the people organizing the events in Los Angeles and was able to secure volunteer positions for Karilyn and her 18-year-old sister. Anyone ages 21 and up were allowed to be locker room attendants, one of the most sought-after positions amongst volunteers; those below that age-requirement were forced to do “more menial labor.” Given the opportunistic timing of the Olympics happening in her hometown the year she turned 21, Steward still appreciates the opportunity she was handed. It was at the 1984 Olympics where she “caught the Olympic bug.”
“Being a locker room attendant was really cool because you were able to have one-on-one contact with people from other countries,” said Steward. “I had never had that experience before, and what I liked about the Olympics then and still like about now is that it is two weeks of everyone getting along. It may sound corny, but it really is two weeks of everyone from different countries being nice to each other. It’s just so rare.”
Although just a volunteer at the time, Steward was asked to work nearly 10-12 hours per day for no real monetary gain. It was “long hours and hard work, but it was just so cool.” As a 21-year-old, Steward experienced an event most will never get a chance to; more importantly, it was here in L.A. and later in Seoul, Korea (1988), where she discovered her passion for traveling and meeting new people.
Since 1984, she has gone to a total of eight different Olympics, six Summer Games and two Winter Games. After Los Angeles, it was Seoul in 1988; Atlanta in 1996; Sydney in 2000, Salt Lake City in 2002; Greece in 2004; Vancouver in 2010; London in 2012. It would be an exercise in understatement to suggest that Steward doesn’t enjoy traveling.
“My sister has no opinion. My mom and dad thought it was cool. I’ve had friends who didn’t understand why I would spend money on this,” added Steward. “Some people spend money on the latest electronics, some on nice furniture, some go to Comic Con, some go to Broadway plays.”
Steward decided in 1984 that she would spend her time and money on something more intangible – creating new memories. But the “bug” she caught in L.A. turned into more of an epidemic. Her next trip was to Seoul in 1988.
One of the volunteer coordinators from the 1984 Olympics began putting together a group for those interested in going to Seoul for the next Olympic Games. The group would be going as tourists, not volunteers.
“It was just fate,” said Steward. “While I enjoyed the 1984 Olympics, I didn’t even think of going as a tourist until someone decided to put together a trip to Seoul. I said to myself, well that would be fun and it was actually in Korea where I decided I love traveling and enjoyed the atmosphere of the Olympics.”
The love for new experiences may have been discovered in 1984 in Los Angeles, but it was in Seoul where Steward cemented her passion for everything the Olympics offered, most notably the chance to meet people from every corner of the world.
In Seoul, Steward met an Australian couple that she is still friends with today. These same friends would later meet up with Karilyn at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, further proving the point that some of her best friendships have come from the trips to the Olympics.
Although the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 didn’t allow for a trip to a foreign country, Steward used the opportunity to make a cross-country road trip and see parts of the country she never had before. As expected, her narrative of the South added to the notion that the area might as well be its own country.
“I had never been to the South before, so that was all interesting,” said Steward. “I liked Tennessee; I didn’t like Louisiana though. There were some places there that were just so very backwards.”
The Olympics adventure to Atlanta, she recalls, was by far one of her least expensive trips of the eight. Her trip to Seoul cost her approximately three thousand dollars, not including the meals eaten abroad; eleven thousand for London, where she stayed three weeks. On average, the cost has hovered around three to four thousand dollars per week at the Olympics.
Unlike the other six Olympics she has been to, Steward’s experiences at the Atlanta and Salt Lake City games were memorable for all the wrong reasons. 1996 was famous for the terrorist bomb attack on the Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta, Georgia during the 1996 Summer Olympics. The explosion claimed 2 lives and injured 111 people. On a related note, Steward’s experience in Salt Lake City had a shadow casted upon it due to the September 11 attacks on the Twin Towers just six months prior. Security was at an all-time high, making the fan experience far from enjoyable.
“My car was broken into, and two days later it was the bombing,” said Steward. “My sister still jokingly calls it the ‘great train robbery’. It still affects me to this day. It was a rude awakening about the world and what it’s capable of.”
When discussing what happened in Salt Lake City, Steward can’t help but laugh. Almost nothing seemed to go right en route to Salt Lake City. After driving to Las Vegas from Los Angeles, Steward left her car at the airport in Las Vegas and flew to Utah.
Upon arrival, authorities questioned her for hours about why she, a California resident, had left her car in Nevada and then flown to Utah.
“I just like Las Vegas,” she exclaimed. “I just wanted to spend a couple days there.”
The questioning and suspicion had only begun. While going through security at an event at the Olympics, the security guard believed a piece of fruit in her bag to be a grenade. Given that 9/11 was fresh in everyone’s minds, the added suspicion was expected but nevertheless frustrating.
“I used to always bring food with me,” said Steward. “I don’t do that anymore. In my bag, I had a piece of fruit with me. You should have seen the security guy’s face.”
On the other hand, her best memories from all the trips so far came from the 2004 trip to Athens, Greece. While she made sure to point out that the Sydney Olympics were easily “the best run games,” it was the scenery in Greece that acted as a reminder to how wonderful traveling can be.
Eight years later, in London, Steward would realize that visiting a foreign city or country during the Olympics doesn’t give the visitor the “real” experience of that place. With the international spotlight upon them, the host city understandably “puts on a show” and everyone is more conscious of behaving properly.
If you want to see a place for what it is, “don’t go during the Olympics.”
“There were people helping us out on the Tube in London,” explained Steward. “One of my friends who lives there said, ‘they must be just behaving themselves because it’s the Olympics. No one ever does that.’”
As the discussion went back and forth, from Atlanta to Sydney, from London to Vancouver, the one theme that continued to be a factor was the long-term planning and organization it takes to actually go to the Olympics, let alone eight different ones. Another librarian at the Calabasas Library mentioned how she cannot fathom planning “so far ahead.”
With eight Olympics already in her memory bank, Steward is ready for the next trip to Brazil next month – her ninth Olympics. She paid for the trip in February of 2014. She is planning on going down to Rio de Janeiro for just one week, enough to catch some events she hasn’t seen before.
“I’ve never been to South America and it’s going to be a big adventure. All the Olympics I’ve been to are – the good and even the not so good!”
Is she worried about the rumors surrounding these games in Rio?
I use a travel agency that specializes in sporting events and they have people from the agency at the hotel in hospitality to help me find my way. I tell them where I want to go and they arrange it. They get me from the airport, hotel and back. They have a place where you can go for secure wifi and meet your fellow travelers. (I’m not the only Olympic nut.)
As an Olympics veteran now, Steward only has one more goal after seeing the opening ceremony: to carry the torch. In the 1970s and 1980s, the general public was allowed to enter a raffle for a chance at holding the torch; nowadays, that system is long gone.
While she makes sure to point out that she is “not a crazy patriotic person,” the opportunity to be part of an international event of this magnitude would be a dream come true for Steward. Until then, she will take solace in knowing that she has witnessed, first hand, the raising of the American flag in foreign countries.
As she continues to figure out a way to get her hands on that torch, whether it be emailing members of the International Olympic Committee or tweeting the coordinators non-stop to get their attention, Steward can always walk over to the box on top of her office cabinet and hold one of the paper-made Olympic torches. It may not have the same significance to the rest of us, but each torch in that box in her office represents a completely unique set of memories to celebrate.